When I was first ordained I heard a pastor defend what he called the “communal pew.”  He argued that a pew was a far more communal piece of furniture than a row of chairs in which only one person could sit at a time. Before I heard him say that, I’d never given it much thought, but since then what he said has stuck with me. He was absolutely correct; I have never entered a church since where I haven’t given some thought to whether these were ‘communal pew’ sorts of people or ‘single chair’ sorts of people. Pews and chairs make a statement, whether intended or not.

When we sit in a pew we risk the possibility of touching another individual by mere circumstance. In my own experience over the years, I’ve observed differences in how English-speaking parishioners and Spanish-speaking parishioners react to the pew. For the most part, English-speaking parishioners like to have some “breathing room” space around them. They don’t like to be squeezed in by others, or have to sit so close together that they’re touching. Spanish-speaking parishioners, again, for the most part, seem not to mind being squeezed into the pew, and sitting so close together that neighbor is touching neighbor.

I watched this phenomenon for eight years while at my last parish which had a church which seated 860 English-speaking people. (I’ll explain that in a minute!)  We had six English-language services each weekend, and at only one or two of those services was there any real possibility that a parishioner might have to sit closely with another – or risk touching each other. We had two Spanish-language services. The Saturday evening service was usually not full to capacity, but at the Sunday afternoon service, our 860 capacity church was stretched to accommodate over 1000+ souls every week. And, as far as I know, those who attended the Spanish-language service never complained. Ever. Not once. They seemed grateful to have a place to worship together, happy to see each other and be with others to whom they could relate. They loved to be close enough that fellow parishioners were squeezed in all around them as they, as one whole unit, worshipped the God they loved, often while holding hands with someone next to them.

Interesting. Is it just a cultural thing happening here? Or something deeper? Whatever it is, it’s also an opportunity for us to ask ourselves why we may – or may not – like to keep others at arm’s length? In the pew. On our highways. While standing in line somewhere. On the sofa in our own home. Why we may or may not like to come to a worship service and be close to others who worship the same God as we?

A friend sent me this poem and I thought it apropos:



By Marilyn Maciel

those people
wouldn’t it be lovely if one could live in a constant state of we?
some of the most commonplace words can be some of the biggest dividers
what if there was 
no they?
what if there was only us?
if words could be seen as they floated out of our mouths would we feel no shame as they passed beyond our lips?
if we were to string
 our words on a communal clothesline would we feel proud 
as our thoughts 
flapped in the breeze?
Indeed, wouldn’t it be lovely if one could live in a constant state of


We can. It’s our choice.

Praying for you. Thank you for praying for me.

Peace friends,


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  • Cgb says:

    Yes, I have made that observation as well. And, never more obvious than at the 7:30 mass where even several dozen folks would spread themselves out over the full 860-seat area!

  • Bill Zaccagnino says:

    Personal space is very much associated with culture. We Anglos like our personal space. Alternatively, some cultures like to be almost nose to nose when talking to another. The Anglo “need” for personal space shouldn’t keep us from interacting, just, perhaps, keep us from seeking shoulder to shoulder seating.

    Having said all that, Easter vigil Masses will surely test our tolerance for close quarters…and with lit candles!

  • Rose says:

    A spot on piece and assessment of people – I often observed not only do people not like to ‘touch’ anyone else; often they sit in the very same place in the same pew every single week, and woe betide the individual who was sitting in that space when the ‘regular occupant’ arrived! Love the poem too, and it would be wonderful if one could live in a constant state of we. I think speaks as well to how we just deal with people in our everyday relations.

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